Japan, a crucial development partner for Bhutan

Dasho Karma Ura (Ph.D.), President of Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies


The President of the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies, Dasho Karma Ura, said Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) has been a leading factor in the modernization of Bhutan.

This was reiterated during a webinar on Japan and South Asia relations titled Towards a more inclusive and sustainable future which was recently held in Thimphu. The webinar was organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan on 16 March.

Dasho Karma Ura said that the period of Japanese assistance which began in 1964 is comparatively one of the longest in the country. Among all development partners, only India boasts of longer development cooperation with Bhutan.

“The celebrated farm expert and botanist, Dasho K. Nishioka, began this relationship propitiously,” Karma Ura said, adding many Japanese followed in the footsteps of this celebrated botanist.

Karma Ura said that in the decades after Dasho Nishoka, prominent Buddhist scholars from Japan such as Prof Yoshiro Imaeda and many others have contributed immensely to the understanding of Bhutan in the international arena.   

“Over the last six decades, this affectionate relationship between the two countries has deepened at various levels. The building of a relationship between the two royal families at the official level and the shared interests and friendships among the people of thee two societies have been exemplary,” Karma Ura said.

He further reiterated that although we are tucked away in the eastern Himalayas, it is a measure of the natural affinity between the two nations that the Bhutanese people enjoy watching NKH programs through television in most Bhutanese homes.

He further said that the Bhutanese government and the people look back with great pride to 1986 when we entered a formal diplomatic relationship with Japan. He said it was a watershed moment in the developmental journey of this landlocked Himalayan nation.

Since the Japanese overseas cooperation volunteers program started 34 years ago, he said that some 612 volunteers and 963 experts have worked in Bhutan for various durations. “They have inspired our communities and youth by working hard and very closely with them,” he said.

Through Japanese assistance, Karma Ura said that some 2,300 Bhutanese have received training in Japan. He said Bhutanese admire Japanese people for their great qualities including trustworthiness, meticulousness, and professionalism, adding that Bhutanese still have to acquire Japanese values of working hard which, he hopes, will be imbibed soon.

Dasho Karma Ura said that every sphere of life in Bhutan has been improved by Japanese ODAs. Japanese volunteers have assisted in the field of small-scale cereal farmers and entrepreneurs, struggling artists and scientists, transport and communication, and health care among many others.

In addition, he said that Japanese ODA began with its focus on mechanization, particularly with Kubota power tillers, seed production, commercial fruit growing, and irrigation water supply.

Further, it widened to infrastructure development such as rural electrification and construction of highways and bridges across difficult Himalayan terrains. “I should say without an iota of doubt that Japanese bridges built across the nations are some of the best in the world and are much appreciated by Bhutanese of all rungs.”

Besides that, Karma Ura said Japanese ODA has also diversified their plans to develop and prepare a master plan for air transport services. Over time, its support has evolved to improve many direct areas of human security through digital development, health, and educational services. It also supported pioneering a project on the decentralization of funds to the 205 local governments in the country.

He said that every five years or so, coinciding with the ending of the national five-year plan, the indicators of the GNH has to be updated by conducting a GNH survey, which cost around 300,000 USD for the field survey, data analysis, and publication of findings. “The previous, as well as the current GNH studies, have been generously funded by JAICA in conjunction with the Royal Government of Bhutan.”

He further added that the Japan ODA, in every way, has been in harmony with the priority of the nation in promoting happiness in Bhutan and across the world. “Looking to the future, Japan and Bhutan both share a common approach to peace, progress, and sustainability.”